Discovery: Finding a notorious smoking gun

I’ve written about the stage of a lawsuit called discovery and how a good lawyer must go through what may be thousands of pages in order to find perhaps the one page that will make his case. I’ve also written about the thrill of finding that one page.

Here, again, from Ryan Lizza’s April 14, 2014 New Yorker article, “Crossing Christie,” is a thrilling description of how an infamous smoking gun was pulled out of thousands and thousands of pages − and at the last minute:

The bridge scandal might never have been revealed if not for the sleuthing of Loretta Weinberg, a seventy-nine-year-old self-described nosy Jewish grandmother who is also a Democratic state senator from Teaneck, New Jersey, just northwest of Fort Lee. “I bungled into the Port Authority issue, just out of my curiosity,” she told me.

In September, Weinberg read an item in the Bergen Record about the [George Washington Bridge] traffic jam [in Fort Lee]… A senior official at the Port Authority promised Weinberg that he would “get to the bottom of it,” but when she didn’t hear back she became suspicious. “My training comes from having raised children through their adolescent years,” she told me. “‘What do you mean you didn’t have a party? You weren’t even smart enough to put the beer cans in someone else’s back yard.’ That’s my investigatory background.”

After Weinberg got State Senator John Wisniewski, the transportation-committee chairman, involved and intrigued, Wisniewski began to investigate, hold hearings and subpoena records concerning the growing brouhaha. But his subpoena power was running out and “the new Democratic speaker of the assembly, showed little interest in renewing” it.  “Wisniewski knew that unless he found something explosive his investigation would be over.”

In the late afternoon of December 23rd, the servers at the Office of Legislative Services, in Trenton, became overloaded as a cache of e-mails with enormous PDF’s arrived. Wisniewski learned that thousands of pages of subpoenaed documents … had arrived. On December 26th, after Wisnewski’s family had gone to bed, he retreated to his home office and trudged through the unwieldy PDFs. He had been fruitlessly investigating Christie’s politicization of the Port Authority for four years, and he assumed there would be little of value in the new documents. “My expectation was, I’m going to go through these and there’s going to be a lot of stuff in here that’s just totally pointless,” he said. It was getting late, and he was close to giving up for the night.

Then an e-mail−one that could possibly ruin Christie’s political career−appeared on his screen. At first Wisnewski said, he thought, “I’m not seeing this right. It just doesn’t make sense.” He started Googling the names. The e-mail was from Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, to [David] Wildstein [Christie appointee to the Port Authority]. The time stamp said it was sent at 7:34 A.M., on August 13, 2013.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

One of the brilliant touches of Lizza is that very short, sotto voce insert “an e-mail−one that could possibly ruin Christie’s political career…”

And another, that his last sentence in this excerpt is “‘Got it,’ Wildstein replied.”

Because it was Wisniewski who “got it,” got the smoking gun.

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